Four of the five candidates for the Davis school board expressed their views on their personal management style, how to narrow the achievement gap between different subgroups of students, the prospect of a budget-shortened school year and the district’s GATE program at a recent forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Davis.
Candidate Claire Sherman had the flu and was unable to participate.
Asked to describe what sort of management style they would have as a school board trustee, Nancy Peterson emphasized being a listener.
“One of the things I enjoy most is talking to people, and usually something that they say makes me pause and think about what they just said,” which often contains “a nugget of truth,” even if what was expressed was an opinion, she said. Peterson stressed her years of service on school site councils, and said, “I have a leadership style that seems to work with teachers and parents.”
Alan Fernandes said, “I’m the only candidate up here who manages public employees. I have experience negotiating complex problems, and 10 years of public policy experience. As a lawyer, I’ve been hired by school districts. And as a father, I have the perspective of a young dad with children just starting out in elementary school.”
Jose Granda described himself as “the only candidate actually teaching right now.” (Granda is a professor in the mechanical engineering department at Sacramento State). “I have 30 years experience in education. I know what teachers need. I teach using technology. And you have to be an educator to know what it is like to teach and what it is like to learn.”
Incumbent Susan Lovenburg said listening to the other candidates reminded her of her own statements as a candidate five years ago. “What I bring now is five years of (being on the school board), weathering these (budgetary) storms. And the time and energy invested in learning the issues, listening to the community, and doing what needs to be done in the best interest of students.”
The candidates were asked to cite what they regard as the most critical factors in narrowing the achievement gap between more affluent students, who tend to score well on standardized tests, and less affluent students, who tend to score lower, as well as the gap between different ethnic subgroups.
“It is critical to identify what (that gap) is, whether it’s language learning or math learning,” Granda said. “There needs to be a charismatic personal approach, working with the student and the family.”
Lovenburg said the district employs math specialists and reading specialists to work with struggling students at all of the its elementary and secondary schools, and this approach is showing some results. She also mentioned tutoring programs sponsored by the nonprofit Davis Bridge Foundation that serve English learners and students from lower-income families. Lovenburg also pointed to Davis High School’s Academic Center program, and the addition this year of a transitional kindergarten class at three elementary schools.
Peterson said it is important to “start aggressively and start early” in efforts to close the achievement gap. She also mentioned “seat time — (struggling) kids need extra seat time, a longer school day. All the studies show exponential growth when you do this. Third, diverse academic achievement. Kids need something to aspire to. If you have a diverse classroom in terms of academic achievement, all the students will do better. It bolsters (the) self-esteem (of the more advanced kids), and brings up the lower-performing kids.”
Fernandes mentioned “early engagement, similar to intervention. We need to focus on parent education. Second, teachers need to understand and identify culturally with their students. And finally, community involvement — with the broader community taking an interest in children.”
Shorter school year
The candidates were asked about the link between the number of days in a school year, and student success. (Many school districts have shortened the school year by as much as two weeks in response to funding reductions from the state. The Davis school district is considering a shorter school year as an option.)
“California has one of the shortest school years in the nation,” Lovenburg said. “Shortening it (further) is not the right way to go. But Finland, which is one of the top-performing countries in the world for education, does not have a long school year. It’s the quality of time, not the amount of time, that matters.”
Lovenburg added that in the Davis school district, “none of us is really interested in furlough days (shortening the school year), but it is difficult to ask our employees for salary concessions without offering something like furlough days” as part of a salary-reduction plan.
Peterson said, “When kids come back after an extended vacation, they are typically behind the curve.” She noted that Davis High School is moving final exams into December in many classes, so that the exam comes before winter break. Peterson said that if furlough days make for a longer summer vacation, “the most dramatic impact will be with our struggling students.”
And a longer school days may not be the answer, she indicated, saying “with younger kids, by the time they get to 2 p.m., they are exhausted. There is only so much time (in a day) you can ask a 7-year-old to really work hard. We need more school days for our kids.”
Fernandes said, “No one wants a shorter school year. I’m open to looking holistically at the problem. I want to focus on the quality of time we can spend in class, given the means we have to work under. There is a lot of discussion about flipping the school day, where you do learning at night for homework, and then apply it during the day with an instructor.
“We need to take a broad look at everything. The generation of students we have today is not only different culturally, but children today learn differently” as compared to children in decades past, in part due to technology.
Granda said he has “lived in six countries, in South America and in Europe. I had the opportunity to see the German and Swiss school systems, where summer vacation is only one month.” He also noted that in some countries “they have an 8-to-5 school day.”
The candidates were asked about the heated community discussions that have periodically surrounded the school district’s GATE program, and what they might do in this area as trustees.
Fernandes said, “The district needs to look at GATE — or any other program — and figure out how to do a better job of differentiated instruction. We should hire differentiated instruction specialists at every school. The studies I’m aware of also suggest that collaborative learning achieves the greatest gains.
“Regarding GATE, I’m not a proponent of disbanding any program. But I want to peel back to the root of the problem, which is doing a great job with differentiated instruction.”
Granda said he had one child in GATE some years back, and “didn’t notice any controversy” at that time. “I believe that everybody deserves an opportunity to be discovered. But there shouldn’t be just one criteria” for identifying GATE students, he said, adding that “Einstein had trouble getting into high school (in Europe) because his French was not too good.”
Lovenburg noted there is “a long history” of discussions about GATE at Davis school board meetings. “Some people are adamant that it is the only thing that saves their children. Others are just as adamant that it is not serving our children well. I think our (system that allows) private testing (for GATE identification) is problematic. But I don’t have an easy answer. Just taking away private testing sets up another problem.”
Lovenburg said she’s interested in “an independent assessment, research-based, looking at the numbers, independent of children’s faces,” in terms of sizing up the situation.
Peterson agreed that GATE can be “a very controversial subject.” She said private testing “allows families with income to continue to test their children until they get into GATE,” with other families not having the same opportunity. Peterson said the GATE program “definitely has a place” in the district, “but the unfortunate part is we offer only one solution, self-contained GATE. I think we need to offer a program so we have a high differentiation of teaching in neighborhood schools, and then have a smaller, self-contained GATE program.”
— Reach Jeff Hudson at [email protected] or 530-747-8055.